Good Nick or Bad Nick: Who shows up for Super Bowl LII?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Monday, January 22, 2018

Given how similar the Eagles and Vikings were heading into this postseason, it shouldn't be a surprise that Philadelphia stole Minnesota's narrative as part of its38-7 blowout victory in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday evening. All year, the Vikings were the deep team who could only possibly be held back by their fill-in quarterback, only for Case Keenum to continually exceed expectations and play like a Pro Bowler.

On Sunday, with the Vikings finally possessing what most expected to be an advantage at quarterback, they were played off the field by a remarkable performance from Nick Foles. Filling in for injured MVP candidate Carson Wentz, Foles delivered the best single-game performance by any Eagles quarterback this season by both passer rating and QBR. Foles finished the game with 352 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, he went 11-of-11 for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns, which was good for both a perfect passer rating (158.3) and QBR (99.9). That's the first time someone has done that on 10 or more attempts in the second half in more than five years.

Jubilant Eagles fans with no intention of heading to school or work this morning might very well take some time on Monday to erase their tweets and disavow their texts from Dec. 25. Less than a month ago, it looked like Foles was going to sink a very promising Eagles season when he traded disastrous pass for pass with Derek Carr in an ugly Christmas night performance against theRaiders. Foles did just enough after a late Raiders turnover to set up a game-winning field goal, which in turn handed Philly home-field advantage for Sunday's victory. A week later, Foles started 4-for-11 with an interception before being rested for the remainder of the Week 17 game.

Across five games in six weeks, we've seen the full gamut of Nick Foles appearances. On Christmas, we saw the Foles who washed out in St. Louis under Jeff Fisher. On Sunday, we saw the guy who had one of the hottest half-seasons in league history under Chip Kelly in 2013. So how did the Eagles turn their quarterback around? And is there an early guess on which Foles we're likely to see against thePatriotsin Super Bowl LII? I ran the numbers and watched every Foles snap from those five starts to try to identify the differences between Good Nick and Bad Nick:

Good Nick vs. Bad Nick

Good Nick executes on manageable third downs. The most shocking thing to come out of Sunday's victory over the Vikings was what the Eagles were able to do on third down. During the regular season, Minnesota allowed teams to convert on just 25.2 percent of their third-down attempts. You won't be surprised to hear that 25.2 percent was the best rate in football in 2017, but to put things in context, the Vikings finished the year with the best third-down conversion rate on defense since 1991.

Foles carved up the Vikings on Sunday. By the time Foles threw his second touchdown pass to wide receiverAlshon Jeffery on third-and-goal to give Philadelphia a 38-7 lead, he and the Eagles had converted nine of their 11 third-down tries. One of those two failed conversions wasn't even Foles' fault, as he hit a wide-open Trey Burton, only for the backup tight end to jump and land out of bounds. Minnesota's only other stop on third down before the game was decided and Eagles fans began devising plans to climb Crisco Mountain was on a Danielle Hunter coverage sack.

The 29-year-old quarterback also pulled off the perfect passer rating and QBR feat on those third downs, going 10-of-11 for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Eagles helped make it easier by leaving Foles with an average of just 6 yards to pick up those third-down tries, with only one third-and-10 along the way. In the two other games in which Foles has looked good on third down -- the Week 15 game against the Giants and last week's divisional-round victory over the Falcons -- the Eagles' offense went a combined 12-for-26 (46.2 percent) on third downs while facing an average of just under 6 yards per conversion attempt.

The Vikings also crushed themselves by failing to tackle on conversions that led to three touchdowns. Trae Waynes failed to wrap up on a Zach Ertz dig route on that third-and-10, which eventually led to a LeGarrette Blount touchdown. Anthony Barr was unable to bring Corey Clement down on a third-and-6 swing pass that should have ended a Philadelphia drive; on the ensuing third down, Foles eluded pressure and hit Jeffery for a 53-yard touchdown. And in the third quarter, when Torrey Smith squeezed out a conversion on a third-and-6 screen through the tackle attempt of reserve safety Anthony Harris, he hopped back up and scored a 41-yard touchdown on a flea flicker on the very next play. Those three possessions should have resulted in three punts, and instead cost the Vikings 21 points.

Bad Nick looks flummoxed on too many third-and-longs. In his two worrisome starts against the Raiders and Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, Foles and the Eagles went just 1-for-17 on third down. That includes a 1-for-14 performance against the Raiders, who ranked 26th in the league on third-down defense this year. (To be fair, the Eagles went 2-for-2 on fourth down.) Foles needed an average of 7.4 yards to convert those third downs, and in his three tries the following week, Foles required an average of 11.7 yards to move the chains. The difference between 6 yards to convert and 7.4 yards to convert doesn't sound like much until you consider that the shortest average third down in the league belonged to the Packers at 6.3 yards, while 7.4 yards would have been 22nd.

Good Nick has the ball out quick, thanks in part to run-pass options (RPOs) and screens. The best half-season of Foles' life came as the quarterback for Chip Kelly, who really introduced RPOs as a staple of an offensive attackin 2013. The Eagles still run a few of Kelly's concepts, and while current coach Doug Pederson assigned Foles a few RPOs in the Giants game, he didn't really get back to them as a meaningful part of the offense until the second half of the Falcons game in the divisional round.

As a pro quarterback, Foles has been at his best when he's getting the ball out before things begin to bog down. He's not the best quarterback on the run or while improvising, although he did come up with a beautiful pass to Agholor up the sideline on a third down Sunday. The RPOs Pederson dialed up keep things simple for Foles, allowing him to read one player -- often a linebacker -- before making a safe throw to an open space where he knows his receiver is about to break. And when an RPO has worked, Pederson hasn't been afraid to go back to it in the same game or even on the very next play.

Pederson also has focused on making Foles' life easier with the screen game, which helped gas out the Vikings' pass rush on Sunday. Since Week 15, Foles leads the league with 189 passing yards on 20 screens, putting him third in attempts, behind Blake Bortles and Ben Roethlisberger. Philly turned seven screen attempts into seven completions, three first downs and 50 yards on Sunday.

Anyone is a threat at any time to be the target of a screen pass for the Eagles, who have completed screens to 10 receivers since Foles entered the lineup, including seven for 108 yards to Jay Ajayi. Ajayi had just 67 receiving yards in his seven games with the Dolphins. Pederson also does a good job of building bigger plays off of the screen game, including a fake screen-and-go to Burton for an easy touchdown against the Giants. That's a hallmark, coincidentally, of Josh McDaniels with the Patriots.

Bad Nick double-clutches the ball and waits for a window that isn't opening. Foles is capable of making plays off-schedule, as he did on the bomb to Jeffery for a touchdown Sunday night, but it's not his forté. His decision-making often grows more questionable as he holds onto the ball for a longer period of time, leading Foles to either force the ball into a window that isn't there or hold onto the ball too long while waiting for an opportunity to arise.

While Foles' numbers looked superficially good heading into this Vikings game, his underlying play hadn't matched up. Foles had two interceptions to his name, but that number should have been closer to five or six. The Giants dropped two stone-cold Foles interceptions in his debut as a starter and might have had a third with some luck. Reggie Nelson dropped a would-be pick before grabbing one later in the victory over the Raiders. Against the Falcons, famously, a pressured Foles lobbed up a duck that somehow bounced offKeanu Neal and into the arms of Torrey Smith for a 20-yard gain, which helped set up what would eventually be a crucial field goal just before halftime. Every quarterback is lucky enough to have some interceptions hit the ground, but before Sunday, Foles' luck had been more generous than most.

Good Nick gets in a rhythm and bad Nick does not. I don't think we're very good at identifying whether a player or team has momentum, but it certainly seems like the current version of Foles looks far more comfortable in the pocket than he did during that ugly stretch of football toward the end of the regular season. His footwork is more concise, and his throws come out when Foles can take advantage of his arm strength, as opposed to in those moments in between steps, when Foles seems to find that brief window. His movement inside the pocket has been far more assured during the playoffs. It also helps that Jason Kelce's snapping has been more consistent in January than it was during a frustrating end to the regular season.

Evaluate Foles' performance on a half-by-half basis, and a fascinating trend emerges, one that was informed from watching him play. After entering the lineup as the starter in Week 15, Foles looked good -- and got worse with each passing half. Since he returned to the lineup in the divisional round after two weeks off, though, Foles has improved half after half:

I think the bye week really helped the Eagles. It gave Pederson a chance to take a step backward, evaluate old Foles tape and integrate concepts that may have worked for the QB in the past back into Philadelphia's offense, including the emphasis on RPOs. It gave Foles a chance to breathe and regain his confidence after seemingly falling apart over the second half of the Raiders game and in his lone quarter against the Cowboys.

Pederson was conservative with Foles on a windy night against the Falcons, and he kept his quarterback to quick decisions and short throws. Each of Foles' 23 completions were what the NFL defines as "short" passes, within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. He mostly attacked the middle of the field. On Sunday, Foles' scope widened. He threw the ball all over the field and attacked Minnesota vertically, going 4-of-7 for 172 yards on his deep throws, and that includes a drop from Smith on a pass Foles slightly underthrew.

On the other hand, I think the Eagles aren't thrilled about having a bye week now in advance of the Super Bowl. The rest will be nice, of course, but I imagine Philadelphia would rather play New England this upcoming Sunday. It would give tight endRob Gronkowski less time to clear the concussion protocol, and given how well Foles is playing, I don't think the Eagles want him to cool off. Teams in the regular season have been slightly better after blowouts without extra rest; since 1990, teams that have won by 30 in a given week have won 59.4 percent of contests when their next game came with short or normal rest (seven days). With long rest (10 days or more), those teams have won 52.9 percent of contests.

Which Foles is going to show up in Super Bowl LII?

Both Foles are going to show up, in part because there's only one player involved. What we've learned from these five starts is that Nick Foles is capable of looking like both Carson Wentz and Mark Wahlberg as the star of "Invincible II" over the course of a month. The best data to use in evaluating a quarterback is all the data, and while it's tempting to treat the most recent performance from Foles as the most valuable information, it's just part of the broader story.

While I'd argue that Foles certainly has improved his play during the postseason, it will be the context that determines whether we see the best or worst of the Arizona product against the Patriots. New England can be beat on the defensive side of the ball. This is a defense that gave up huge chunks of yardage to Blake Bortles and a less effective Jaguars offense on Sunday, after finishing the year next to last in defensive DVOA. Put Foles in positive situations, and Good Nick is likely to come out. Foles is perfectly capable of converting third-and-4 and throwing quick screens to his receivers, and if you're the Eagles, you want to be doing just that. The Pats have the league's third-worst run defense, making them a viable target for Ajayi and Blount on early downs and in power situations. Bill Belichick is arguably the most brilliant defensive coach in the history of the league, but he has never won a Super Bowl with a defense this bad, and he can only scheme up so much when the ball is coming out 1.5 seconds after it's snapped.

On the other hand, put Foles in negative situations, and Bad Nick is going to rear his head yet again. The Patriots don't have a great pass rush, but look at what happened to Trey Flowers & Co. when they got a lead against the Titans and were able to pin their ears back and go after Marcus Mariota, who Matt Patricia's unit sacked eight times on 45 dropbacks. Get Foles in third-and-long, and he's probably going to make mistakes. Get Foles to make mistakes, and they may very well compound on one another.

If this sounds like it's true for just about every quarterback, well, you're not wrong. We've also just seen a more extreme range of outlines for Foles after five games, even if the overall package is about where we could have expected once Wentz was injured. He's likely more sensitive to game situations than most other passers, given his lack of recent game experience, although the five starts have helped those concerns.

They might not need Good Nick to look like the guy who ran roughshod over the Vikings on Sunday night. With the right team effort, Good Enough Nick could be just fine.

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